Here’s a story to creep  you out.

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The Medusa Painting

Garry D. Nation

2007.  All rights reserved.
Today he would lay his eyes upon it, fulfilling the dream he had nursed since graduate school.  It was the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year since he began his quest, and he made note of the fact.  Though it was an unplanned coincidence, it seemed fitting, fateful, almost predestined.

It had taken that long through the filing of requests and the staging of inquests, through tireless lobbying and ceaseless litigation, to come to this day.  Of course in the meantime he had completed four advanced degrees, established a career as an art historian and critic, written four books and published three (the second of which established for him an international reputation), fallen in love once, and been married and divorced twice (neither time to the woman he'd fallen in love with).

His passion, everyone thought (especially his ex-wives), was his work—endless research, review, writing, consulting, critique.  They were wrong.

It was beauty.

Perhaps never since Immanuel Kant had nature so unequally yoked an artist's heart and brilliant perceptivity to a physical nature so devoid of dexterity, so impotent to translate the beatific vision to canvas or clay or granite.  This was not his own judgment of himself.  It was Prof. Schoen, his most able mentor, who thus attributed to sublimation his remarkable drive to comprehend and appreciate art.  For him it was a matter beyond talent, beyond aptitude.  It constituted a life purpose: to know and define and describe beauty.  To see, to touch, taste, hear, and smell it, and then, though being unable to express it as it is, at least to explain it and to expose the faults of every effort to represent it that falls short—and everything falls short.

But today, George Rogers Sterling hoped to consummate his life’s purpose.  Today he would touch, begin to explore, and perhaps even solve the greatest art mystery of the past 100 years.  Everything else he had studied, all he had done, all he had experienced and written and taught, had brought him to this day.

Today his would be the first human eyes in over seven decades to examine what might prove to be the greatest painting of the modern era.

Today he would look upon the hidden, the forbidden.

The tailored navy pinstripe suit, the crisp white shirt, and the crimson silk tie gave him a striking appearance.  G. Rogers Sterling, Ph.D. did not fit the stereotype of the rumpled academic.  He always dressed impeccably when he went out in public, but his sense of style was born not of the vanity of the fashionable nor of the pragmatism of the ambitious.  He simply had a keen eye for what looks, well, beautiful.  His sartorial sense offered him a venue for at least a modicum of artistic self-expression.

Normally he rode the subway to the International Museum of Fine Arts, but for this special occasion he took a cab.  His attorney Fox met him there at the sidewalk and opened the door of the cab for him.  Sterling emerged carrying a black leather satchel.  Fox toted his own briefcase, and together they walked up the granite steps and through the great doors of the majestic building.

Philip Seib, the curator, met him in the foyer with scrupulous politeness and a tight face.  He had an assistant with him, a young man with thinning hair.  Flanking him at a discreet distance were two security personnel, one in a blue twill police-type uniform with a weapons belt, and the other in plainclothes (if a maroon blazer, white shirt and black slacks can be considered plainclothes) with a radio earpiece and microphone curling across his cheek.

“There are some members of the press present,” said Seib.  Two came forward.  Sterling was pleased both that there would be press coverage and also that there were no more reporters than this.  This is something that needs to be duly reported but low key, not a spectacle, he thought.  It was fitting.  And no television reporters with those obnoxious cameras.  Splendid.

One of them was a man he recognized who wrote for an international art magazine, a tall dumpling of a man with white hair and pink cheeks. His brown suit was overdue for the dry cleaners, and a $12 necktie hung with its knot askew, barely binding an unbuttoned shirt collar.  They had met on a number of occasions at various art events before Sterling found out they were members of the same downtown club.  On a few occasions they’d had a drink together and once met for lunch. What was his name—Pepper? Peeper? Peter? Something like that.  He knew his first name was Howard.

The other was a female reporter from the newspaper.  Sterling sized her up quickly.  In her mid-twenties, slightly overweight and with short brown hair, she was somewhat underdressed he thought, wearing gray slacks and an azure blouse, the wrong shade for her—it made her complexion seem yellowish.  At least she was neat.  Appropriate introductions were made and pleasantries were exchanged, but, Sterling’s mind was on other things and all this meant no more than passing through a turnstile.  Seib then escorted Sterling to his office with that cool courtesy that marks those who are getting on with unpleasant business.

"Dr. Sterling, I believe you've met our attorney, Mr. Finch, " he said with an open gesture toward the man who was now rising from the sofa.  He extended his hand and Sterling took it.

"Ah, Mr. Finch.  Yes, our paths have crossed. Good day.  I assume you have the necessary documents so we can proceed with this."

"Good morning, Dr. Sterling.  As always, you come directly to the point.  Yes, everything is here for you to sign.  And this is Helen Watson who will notarize…."

"Ah, that's fine, just fine.  Good day, madam."

"Would you like anything, Dr. Sterling?  Coffee, tea, water?" Seib's assistant offered.

"Not just now, thanks.  I'm really very anxious to get on with everything.  Now what do I need to sign here?"

One at a time and in specific order the attorney presented the battery of pro forma documents that required his signature while his own lawyer looked on, nodded, and occasionally submitted an extra word of explanation or question for verification.  There were at least half a dozen such papers—the stipulations that the museum was in compliance with court orders to the satisfaction of the plaintiff, procedural concessions, etc.  The last was the only one that Sterling really noticed or paid mind to its content.  "This," said Mr. Finch, "releases the museum corporately and all its personnel individually from any liability regarding whatever adverse events may occur to your person collateral to or correlative to your perusal and examination of the artifact."

It was not the release document itself that caught him off guard.  He was aware that it would come up.  What surprised him was the earnestness, the grimness with which it was put forward.  It was as though these people truly believed the urban legend.

Sterling laughed, leaning back in the leather conference chair.  "You think I'm signing a death warrant here, don't you Mr. Seib?  That I'm on my way to my doom."  Seib stood with his arms folded, his eyes cast down.  He did not respond.  "What about you, Mr. Finch?  Now I know you have to represent the interests of your client in all of this, but really?  Do you sincerely believe these macabre tall tales?"  He waved the pen.  "Am I signing away my life, Mr. Finch?"

Finch looked back unblinking.  "Dr. Sterling, you and I and Mr. Fox all know the judge's order prohibits any further comment on this subject by the museum or its representatives.  Anything Mr. Seib or I say, one way or the other, could be construed as harassment and harangue.  So you will not think us rude if," and he glanced toward an expressionless Fox, "we should simply keep our opinions to ourselves."

Sterling laughed again, a wide-mouthed ha-ha-ha, and applied his signature to the document.  After the signing and notarizing of all the legal forms, he placed both hands on the table with a flourish and, looking around at all in the room, said cheerily, "Now, shall we go forward?"

Seib, his arms still folded, nodded toward his assistant, who approached and said, "Dr. Sterling, if you would please come with me, sir."  He led him out the door, followed by the newspaper reporter and the art journalist.  The two lawyers moved close and began talking in confidential tones.  Seib walked behind his desk and, still standing, picked up the phone as they went out of his office.  The two security officers met the party outside the door and escorted them down familiar corridors and into the special display chamber for the painting.  It was displayed in live video.

The lighting was soft, and on the opposite wall there was a screen on which was presented a full-sized, high-definition projection of the most notorious painting that almost no one now living had ever seen.

The female reporter approached the enormous screen and stood close.  "This is absolutely amazing!" she gasped.

"This is preposterous," sniffed Sterling.

The tall man gave a sideways glance at Sterling, but addressed instead the reporter.  "Are you commenting on the painting or on the manner of its display?"

"Well, both,” she replied.  “I mean, the painting is as beautiful as I've heard, and I've seen pictures in print.  But I didn't expect a video projection to be this sharp or to show up so much detail.  Or this big!"

"Which is another way of saying that you haven't seen the painting at all," said Sterling.  "It isn't the painting that amazes you, it's the presentation.  And I grant you, the presentation is high technology.  Is technology art?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  That’s an argument for another day.   But is this a painting?  No!  It's a television show!  A television show produced by the superstitious for the gullible, no different in kind from a traveling frontier freak show.  Welcome to Oz!  Behold the Wizard!"

“Well, Rogers, today you get to peek behind the curtain.”  The big man’s affable response and easy familiarity deflected the professor’s agitation and somehow caused him to soften.  Suddenly he remembered his last name—it was Potter.

“And how are you doing, Howard?  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

The room was furnished with comfortable chairs and end tables, and the museum assistant invited them to make themselves comfortable, asking again if they needed anything.  It was going to take at least a half hour for everything to be ready.  Sterling didn’t understand why but he was resigned to it, so he decided that he would take that tea now.  Potter asked for coffee, and the reporter a soda.  A server promptly entered with a cart bearing beverages and assorted cookies, pastries, and other snacks.  As they sipped their drinks and settled into chairs, the reporter spoke up: “Professor Sterling, may I ask you a few questions before you go in?”

“Of course, Ms.—I’m so sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“Jessica.  Jessica Post, professor.  Please call me Jessica.  You’ve been through so much to get to this place.  Do you feel as if you are on the verge of a great conquest?”

“More like a prospector getting ready to dig a claim, Jessica.  It may be a bust, probably will be—but it just might be the mother lode.  We’ll have to see.”

“What do you hope to find?”

“Answers.  Connections.  Insoluble questions.  Another key or another locked door.  Whatever is there.  I’m hoping to find something important enough to have spent over a decade trying to reach it.”

He looked at her keenly.  “But what do you know of my quest, and of the lore surrounding the infamous Medusa Painting?  You’re new to this story, are you not?”

“I am,” she admitted, “but my paper is not.  I’ve been briefed by those who’ve covered your story up to this point, I’ve read all I can get my hands on, and I’m very excited to finally meet you and share a little of this moment with you, to get your perspective on it.”

“Very well,” he said, his voice taking on a professorial tone, “but there’s no point in me telling you what you already know.  Most of the world doesn’t even know this painting exists.  It’s the most sensational art story ever covered up.  Yours is the only large newspaper to keep up with it at all, even to admit that it’s more than an urban myth.”

“We’re hoping to be in on a great discovery.”

“You’re hoping to see a train wreck.  Not you personally, but your editor and your publisher.  That’s the story they’re looking for: the self-destruction of the mad art critic.  I know them.  I used to work for them.  I don’t mind, really.  At least they’re keeping up with it when everyone else has buried it.”  He thought for a moment as he looked at the wondering face of the young woman.  “Would you mind if—I would love to know what they have given you to prepare for this.  What do you know of the origin of the painting, and the controversy?”

If she felt put on the spot, the only way she showed it was by slightly clearing her throat.  “That it was painted in Madagascar sometime between 1902 and 1912 by a post-impressionist named Francois Molina.  I thought it was interesting that he was a French national with a Spanish father who was born in North Africa.  Anyway, its proper title is The End of Eden.  Many considered it to be an eerie prophecy of modern art, of the First World War, and just about everything else that was to come.  Many also consider it to be the greatest unrecognized influence on the whole spectrum of 20th century art, including Picasso, Duchamp, and Dali.”

“Very good, Jessica.  You ticked off that list of facts from the public domain with alacrity.  But tell me what you know of the lore, the legend, the superstition—the matter that brings us to this day.”

“Only the basics, really,” she said without blinking.  “Actually I keep running into roadblocks in my research, and I was hoping you would shed some light….”

“Roadblocks indeed.  More like a tower and a moat!  No one wants the truth of this painting to be told.  It’s hard to tell the lies from the half-truths from the mystery.”

“So you do believe there is a mystery behind the painting.”

“Oh, manifestly so.  It’s the nature of that mystery that I wish to investigate, and until now my every attempt to do so has been stymied.  But what in fact do you know?”

“Well, um, as I understand it, shortly after Molina completed Eden he went insane, was institutionalized, and then just disappeared—we don’t even know the date of his death.  Also, that Eden is Molina’s only surviving painting—that surprised me—because all the rest perished mysteriously some time before 1920, maybe during World War I.”

“So they’d like us to think.  And?”

“And that there were mishaps or strange events of some sort during the opening exhibition of the work that caused its exhibitors to close it abruptly.”

“Mishaps and strange events.  That’s putting it mildly, wouldn’t you say, Howard?  Go on, Jessica.”

“Well, the history of the painting is hard to pin down after that.  It passed through the hands of various private and public collectors, most of whose names—well, there’s no record of them—and it surfaced periodically, only to be quickly withdrawn from public view.  In 1945 it was liberated from the Nazis, but was taken and locked away, I think in the Louvre….”

“Luxembourg, but go on.”

“Then in 1973 it was acquired by the International.  For more than twenty years it was kept in storage.  That’s when you began your efforts…”

“Crusade is a better word,” Potter interjected.

“And the museum began experimenting with various means of ‘indirect exposition.’  They claimed it was because of the supposed fragility of the painting—but as your lawsuits brought out, the trustees were less worried for the painting itself than about those who looked at it.  I still really don’t understand the issue here.”

“Neither did the courts,” muttered Sterling.

“Finally they arrived at the current method of display via digital projection.”

“Horrible!  As bad or worse than the weak prints they used to show.”

“I’m told that even the techs who set up the viewing system did so under strict supervision. Otherwise since then the painting has been virtually unviewed and unexamined directly by human eyes.”

“An injustice that will be remedied within the hour.”

“So the judicial system is worth something, eh Rogers?” chuckled Potter.

“Is that all you know, Jessica?”

“It’s all I could find out so far.  I really didn’t have a lot of time.  I was hoping you would be able to fill in the gaps for me.”

“Actually you’ve grasped things very well up to a point.  I congratulate you.  The gaps you observe exist in the logic of those who would stifle legitimate investigation and discovery for the sake of a myth of recent invention.”

“Who invented this myth?  How did they do it?  And why?”

“Those are the classic reporter’s questions, and if you can find the answers you’ve got yourself a story, haven’t you?  I can only give you my opinion.  I think the myth began as a promotional gimmick, invented by those who first promoted and exhibited the painting.  It was done for publicity’s sake.  But then the myth took on a life of its own in the minds of a gullible public and became self-defeating, preventing the very thing it was supposed to stimulate.”

“Which was?”

“Business.  Traffic.  Viewership.  The bread and butter of the art business.”

“So you think it was all a scam?”

“Scam is too strong a word.  I’m sure the intent was to sensationalize the emotional troubles of the artist, just like they did who sensationalized van Gogh—the cutting off the ear and all that.  They didn’t trust the painting to draw people to itself by its own beauty and horror.  They think beauty and horror and form and profundity are insufficient to catch the attention of a ticket-buying public.  They needed a sensational story, so they seized on a real event, embellished and magnified it.  And then the story turned on them and became a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.”
“How do you think that happened?”
“That’s not my field of study, Jessica.  I’ll leave that question to the cultural anthropologists.  They can chart the development of a modern myth much better than I.  But how can any work created by man rob man of his humanity, his reason?  I just want to study the painting itself.  It seems to me that answers will only be found through research and study—and of the work itself, not of dim lithographs or electronic pixelations.”
“A minute ago you said ‘beauty and horror.’ You believe the painting contains an element of horror?”
“Manifestly.  That much is evident even in the rude facsimiles to which we’ve been subjected these past several years.”
“By ‘horror’ you mean…what?”
“The ugliness that both repels us and compels us, that both fills us with revulsion yet draws us somehow so that we cannot escape it.”
“How can you be certain that you will be immune to.…”
She was interrupted by the curator’s assistant who entered saying, “Professor Sterling, the painting is ready, if you would accompany me, please.”  They all rose.
“I do hate to break this off, Jessica.  It has been charming to chat with you.  Mr. Potter here can actually answer your ‘fact’ questions better than I, I think.  He even holds that the legends have some credence.”
“May have,” the tall man interjected.
“At any rate, I shall be glad to talk to you at length about my preliminary observations later this afternoon.  I don’t think I’ll be breaking for lunch.  I believe I would rather dine in the Garden of Eden,” he said with a wink. 
“Rogers, do you remember our wager that we made about this time last year?”
Sterling turned suddenly.  “I do, Howard, I do!  And I shall look forward to opening that bottle of brandy.  The cask of Amontillado, as it were.”
“I sincerely hope you win that bet, Rogers.”
“So superstitious for a man of the humanities.”
“Superstitions and traditions are the stuff of the humanities—and they do not arise from nothing.”
Sterling’s laughter trailed down the hallway as heels clicked on the marble floor.  Jessica Post did not wait for silence, but turned immediately to the tall man. 
“Tell me about that wager.”
“Oh, just something that came up before he entered the final round in court when it became apparent he was going to win his case.  I made a joke, ‘be careful what you ask for,’ that kind of thing.  I told him he was either more courageous or more foolish than Perseus, since he was going to face the Medusa without a shield.  He took me more seriously than I thought, and wagered a bottle of brandy—our club stocks a very, very fine and very expensive brandy—that he would conquer the superstition and return unscathed.”
The reporter began to pepper him with questions and received abundantly informative answers.  Howard Potter’s affable, easygoing manner and dumpy appearance belied a note card file of a brain with a broad and occasionally deep range of knowledge that included a grasp of the most arcane lore regarding the painting and the painter.  He had for years been held by a special fascination for the Medusa Painting—not to the obsessive extreme of Rogers Sterling, but it had been more than a hobby for the art journalist.
Under her questioning but without hesitation he introduced the young reporter to secrets about the painting that only a handful of people in the world knew.  After offering her several tidbits of information she could write into her story, he leaned toward her in a confidential way and said, “I shall be glad to tell you what you really want to know, but you will not be able to print it in your paper.”
“Why?  Is it top secret?” she joked.
“Top secrets get leaked and published.  No, this is a much higher level of censorship.  It will never get past your editor.”  She looked at him quizzically, and he continued, “Molina’s insanity was not incidental to the painting.  It was directly related to it, and apparently was caused or brought on at least to some degree by his own contemplation of it.”
She jotted notes and asked a few more questions before what she heard made its impact on her mind, and then she was properly incredulous.  “You mean his own painting literally drove him mad?  How?”
“To be more precise, he entered a catatonic state from which he never emerged.  Over a period of about a year various attempts were made to restore him to health.  There are undocumented reports that Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung each made a stab at treating him (separately and at different times of course).  All efforts were to no avail, eventually he was institutionalized in a monastery and then, as you know, disappeared from there somehow and was never heard from again.”
“But I mean, how?  How did a painting—his own painting!—supposedly make him insane?
“That, young lady, is the mystery of The Medusa Painting, and the fact that the question has never been answered is, in the last analysis, why it has been withheld from exhibition.  The very question has been forbidden, and our Professor Sterling is one of a select few, the first in a generation, who have been able to penetrate the veil.”
“Go on.  I’m intrigued.”
“You know those ‘mishaps and strange events’ we were talking about, so vaguely mentioned in your source material?”
“Yes, I was getting ready to ask….”
“Mr. Molina was not the only one so disturbed by his painting.  From the very first exposition and in every one to follow, there has been someone—sometimes several, on one occasion a small crowd—who followed the artist into mental oblivion.  That’s how Eden became Medusa.”
“Because everyone who looks at it turns to stone?”
“Well, not literally of course, and strictly speaking not everyone.  Actually only a relative few have succumbed to the painting in any way that affected them permanently.  Most have simply thought it was a wonderful painting and left it at that, and it didn’t change their lives any more than beholding any other great work.  But again, many others have been moved in profound ways beyond what one expects even from the greatest works of art.”
“How so?”
“They’ve described it in various ways, but generally it comes back as a reflection of soaring ecstasy combined with dire panic or a feeling of being trapped.  Some spoke of terror.”
“No, I mean—that’s fascinating, but how can a mere painting induce such extreme reactions?”
“No one’s been able to pin that down, doubtless to some extent because it’s been sequestered.  There are basically three theories, or three types of theories.  One is that there is some visual cue that triggers a neurological response in people with a specific but unknown susceptibility.  Then there’s a Freudian-type theory that suggests there are subconscious elements from the artist’s troubled mind embedded in the painting, and that it triggers a similar or sympathetic response from the subconscious of certain viewers.  And then there’s the—for lack of a better term—the supernatural explanation.”  He paused.  Her eyes were fixed on him.  “That one’s got your attention, eh?”
“Are you kidding?  Sounds exotic.  What’s it about?”
“Molina was known to have been enthralled by the animistic religions of the Malagasy tribal groups and the various, isolated island peoples of the Indian Ocean.  You may remember the ‘African mask’ phase in Picasso and others.  No one has ever conclusively shown it, and there’s no real evidence that Molina ever followed that trend, but some think he painted masks or totems of power and sorcery into his backgrounds.”
“So what you’re calling the supernatural theory is, what?  That people look at the painting and fall under some sort of spell or hex?”
“In so many words—yes.”
“Is this what Professor Sterling means by ‘superstition’?”
“Actually he’s referring to all of it, to the whole notion that a work of art—and a magnificent one at that—could send any sane mind packing.”
“So what does he say about all the weird stuff?”
“He discounts it.  Calls it flummery.  He thinks most of the alleged episodes never happened at all—and to be honest, most of them are poorly documented at best.  One event, the one with the crowd, was documented, and he argued persuasively in court that it was a demonstrable case of mass hysteria.”
“What does he say about what happened to Molina?”
“Mainly he points out that Molina had serious mental instabilities before he began working on the painting.  His theory is that Molina simply experienced a catastrophic collapse into the depression he’d been fending off for years, remarkable but understandable in light of the enormous strain of his own neurotic perfectionism.  As for certain other particular cases that are notorious, our friend Dr. Sterling believes they’re the result of hyper-suggestibility on the part of persons who were themselves already unbalanced—you know, like how a suicide influences other people in the neighborhood who are themselves suicidal.  All part of the urban legend, he says.”
“So, all these years the painting has been withheld from the public because of the fear that they would fall under its spell and metaphorically turn to stone?”
“Actually it’s a matter of fears layered upon fears.  At first the earliest episodes—whether or not they actually happened—after the story made the rounds it had exhibitors afraid that at any moment someone would fall over or go berserk.  Later there were added issues of liability and insurability, fears of litigation, and all that.  Add to that the dozens of rumors that emerged from years of private ownership and its several changes of hands, spooky things that supposedly happened while the Nazis held it, and eventually no one wanted to take the chance of showing it at all, even knowing that it would draw thousands, because the very people who’d come would be drawn by the bizarre history to see if they could dare their fate and withstand the madness.  I don’t really blame those who’ve withheld it, especially with the rise of a tort-happy society.  But I think they’ve only fanned the flame.”
“Dr. Sterling thinks promoters invented the myth to stir up publicity.”
“That’s assuming that the ‘myth’ was a contrivance of the promoters. The question is, what if it is more than a myth?”
“Do you really think it might be?”
“I’m actually more worried that it isn’t.  Sterling has been chasing this Moby Dick for over a decade.  He’s totally invested in it.  What happens if it turns out after all to be just another painting?  What if Moby Dick turns out to be an ordinary fish?  Anticlimax can be as devastating as…. “
At that moment the room became suddenly dim as the bright display on the flat screen went dark.

 “Professor Sterling is at last on the point of contact with his life’s quest,” said Potter.  “I hope it doesn’t disappoint him.”  He looked at his watch.  It was eleven o’clock.

*  *  *
Sterling’s first look at the painting did not impress him either emotionally or intellectually, but he customarily downplayed first impressions anyway.  He had entered the room facing away from the painting, letting his eyes become fully adjusted to the light and the chamber dimensions before he let them fall on the painting itself.  When he turned around he established his perspective within the room.

The room was smaller than he thought it would or should be, and the canvas dominated it, bullied it by its sheer size, 24’ x 12’ not including the frame—which itself was the original one designed and built by the artist, well-polished but surprisingly plain, hardly more than a brace to hold the canvas in place.  The space for the exhibit seemed only slightly deeper than the painting was high.  It was unfair to both the room and the painting.  Where could one stand to gain a perspective on the work as a whole?
His immediate impulse was to accuse the museum of incompetence, or even spite, for setting it up like this, but then he remembered that the agreement called for the painting to be displayed to him according to the artist’s own stipulations regarding space and lighting.  He consulted his notes, paced off the length and width of the floor, assessed the height of the ceiling, and concluded that any fault needed to be charged to Molina himself.  And truly the room was much larger than it seemed.  The painting completely tyrannized its space, swallowing up every square inch of the territory it guarded, and by an illusion diminished the real space of the room.  Still, the room was too small.  Why would the artist set conditions that so restricted the angles and views of his work unless it was deliberate?
The scholar shook off his chagrin and set about to employ his customary method of analysis, taking in the total painting before letting his eyes seek out details.  Again his first impression was deceiving.  It seemed that the lighting was all wrong, unevenly and awkwardly bright in some spots and dim in others.  He then realized that it was part of the artist’s technique, playing with light and shadows external to the painting as well as internal to it.

“All right.  Gimmicks and stunts aside, what is there about you that merits all this attention?” said Sterling to the subject of his interrogation, the painting itself.  He spent a good deal of time absorbing the total impact of the work, then set about looking at particulars.  There were a number of small anomalies that never appeared in any of the reproductions, the most significant being the dimensions of the canvas and frame.  It was not a perfect rectangle.
On close inspection it was in fact a pentagon, though just barely, a few millimeters higher at the apex than the height of the vertical sides.  The top plank of the frame was constructed from a single strip of lumber, and by an optical illusion it appeared to be straight and not the inverted angle it truly was.  This was a detail missed by the museum in its attempts to put forward an indirect display.

Interesting, but to what purpose?  Obviously part of the design, but apparently inconsequential.  Are we still dealing with optical tricks?  Practical jokes?  A cheap attempt by the artist to be significant by magnifying the trivial?  Thus far he was more annoyed than impressed.

Taking a breath he closed his eyes and let his body relax.  He had unconsciously built up tension and now sought consciously to release it.  With his eyes still closed he began to visualize the painting.  It fit the overall pattern of a post-impressionistic pastorale à la Cezanne or Gaugin, striking in certain aspects but not extraordinary as a whole.

He let his eyes look at the painting again.  It opened up to reveal Molina’s mastery of a full range of styles and techniques, what amounted to a panoramic display of painting from late Classicism to early Modernism.

Though he had written a description of the painting at least a half dozen times before, Sterling began to write his thoughts afresh, as though he had never seen it in reproduction.

The viewer’s perspective is from inside the Garden of Eden looking out toward its eastern exit.  At the vanishing point about a half meter below the apex of the curiously pentagonal canvas lies the unknown, the unfinished, represented by a singular point of emptiness, an unpainted void so small as to be almost indiscernible without close inspection and a magnifying glass.  The journey toward that point passes through a scene that begins with simple, clear lines and primary colors in soft shades, but moves quickly into a lush, green, complex landscape vibrant with power and joy.  Nature is balanced, regular, benevolent.  Further on, Nature is still orderly and benevolent, but also passionate and much less predictable.
Imperceptibly the details of the scene lose their passion while retaining every realistic feature—the veins in the leaves, the blades of grass, the bark on the trees, the scales on the serpent.  The viewer becomes conscious of a hardness that was not noticed before.  The hardness turns to anger and sorrow as an impressionistic haze begins to blur the once vivid details.  Gradually Nature’s benevolence turns first to hostility, but finally to indifference.   Order is lost, definition between images becomes impossible, and chaos at last denies the eyes any hope of finding rest.  All that is left at the end of the eye’s journey is the empty vanishing point.

He put down the pad and pen and turned his eyes again to the painting, studying the work as a whole.  What is its story?  What is its context?  What are the clues?

If we did not have the title we may or may not have guessed that this is about Eden. There’s a naked man and woman in a lush environment, putatively Adam and Eve, and there’s a serpent.  There is no tree either of life or of knowledge.

He interrupted himself and inserted “particular” in the space above “tree,” then added “apparent.”

The setting is ambiguous as to time as well as place.  Assuming that the Genesis story provides the backdrop, it is not clear whether the scene occurs before or after the temptation and sin.  There is no forbidden fruit in evidence, either whole or in remains.  Has it not yet been revealed, or is it already totally consumed—or is there any forbidden fruit at all?

The man and the woman are naked and not ashamed, but neither are they happy.  There is no bliss in this paradise.

Has the sin been committed, is it yet to be committed, or is there any sin at all?  If so, what is the nature of it?  Do we have the depiction of a fall or of an ascent?  Or simply a transition with no moral implications? Has the judgment been pronounced, or are they awaiting it—or is their damnation merely to have been created at all?

Clearly the artist is no biblical literalist.  He has changed the story, but the plot of his own version is yet unclear.  The immediate impression is not so much of tragedy as of depression.
Sterling paused from his note taking and reflected for a minute before continuing.  Artists of the Renaissance portrayed the contrast between Eden and the wilderness starkly, a decisive move from a tropical forest into a barren desert.   Not so Molina, who portrays the passage as an inevitable evolution—as if he sees man’s ability to perceive reason and truth and beauty as a tragic flaw that leads to damnation.

Just off the center of the scene stands the doomed (we presume) pair.  Adam’s naked back is to the viewer but we can somehow discern his mood. His shoulders are square, the position of his head reveals no sense of direction, and his feet are moving unreluctantly toward the wilderness.  He is either indifferent to the fate that awaits him or oblivious to it.

The focal image, however, is the seminude figure of a grieving Eve taking a last look at Paradise.  Or perhaps she is not grieving.  Her posture and expression, even her physical features, are ambiguous—the most ambiguous element of an ambiguous picture.  The viewer’s eyes are drawn to her by what is not there.  From a distance she is beautiful, but as one draws closer in, one searches in vain for an expression, for a face, for a personality, for any personhood at all.  Yet there is a depth and complexity in the shading that keeps our eyes probing in hope that something will appear.  This is the most masterful technical achievement of the painting I am sure.   But what does it mean?  What is its place in the picture?  Is Molina asserting that personality will eventually emerge, or that it is an illusion?  That personhood itself is an illusion?  Or is he just hoping that it is not?

Again the scholar paused and looked up from his meditations.  The answer to such questions could only be inferred from the painting itself and from what little is known of Molina’s disturbed life.  The artist left behind no commentary on any of these elements of the painting.  He left only one cryptic statement, a spoken word written down by a friend shortly after the painting was completed but before it was shown.

Remembering this detail, Sterling pulled a paper-bound monograph from his satchel and opened it to a familiar passage.  An anonymous friend recorded that Molina gestured toward the painting “with great animation, agitation, and alarm,” crying out,
              Voilà les chérubim.  Voilà les brûlants.  Voilà l’épée flambant.  Fuissez!  Fuissez!   
               Je tu vien, ma Terreur!
              Behold the cherubim.  Behold the burning ones.  Behold the flaming sword. Flee!  Flee!
              I come to thee, my Terror.
With these last recorded words of a still lucid mind, the artist clearly seemed to be indicating a specific character or characters in the painting, yet no such figure appeared in any of the reproductions.  One of the secondary reasons Sterling wanted to view the work directly was to solve the mystery of the “burning ones.”  Thus far his perusal of it had given him no clues as to what Molina meant.  There were no evident fiery beings and no visible flaming sword, unless he had embedded them in the landscape—begging the question of why he would camouflage them.

Sterling scouted multiple spots in the room and found none of them satisfactory for a comprehensive perspective of the canvas.  Perhaps this was the intent of the painter, to construct a visual epic and then force the viewer see it in fragments—a telling forecast indeed of the future of 20th century art.

He looked at his Tag Heuer.  It was now past 4:30 p.m. This was only the first of a season of days he intended to spend at The End of Eden.  He decided to wrap up his preliminary observations, go home to transcribe his notes, and have dinner at the club.  Perhaps Howard Potter might like to join him.  Ms. Jessica Post would also be a delightful addition to their conversation if she didn’t mind the company of older men.  She’s bright, might even have a wit—but she’ll need to dress a little better, he thought.

He collected his notes and slid them into his satchel, stood to stretch his back, and faced the great painting one last long moment before leaving for the day.  He looked again at the featureless Eve.  Is this the face of Medusa, he chuckled to himself.  Is there in truth no beauty?  “Good night, Madam,” he said aloud.  “I’ll see you in the morning.”  As he turned to leave his eye caught a flicker of light and he thought he heard—what?  A soft whoosh.  Did some electrical problem make the lights blink?  The museum would have to repair it before he came in tomorrow.

He stood facing the canvas, not looking at the painting but watching the room to see if the lights would flicker again.  Once more a barely perceptible ray of light rushed by, but it did not emanate from the lighting system.  Its source apparently was the painting itself.  A sound softer than a whisper, softer than a thought, taunted his ear in the silent room.  It came from no direction, yet appeared to have its source in the painting.

The wordless, toneless, voiceless sound seemed to be drawing him like a beacon.  It did not sound in his ears.  An auditory hallucination?  Sterling had never had a hallucination before, but if this was one it seemed awfully unobtrusive.  Yet it did not seem as though his ears were playing tricks on him either.  It was persistent, urging him to shift his position, to move to a different spot.

Sterling began slowly moving about the room, his eyes toward the canvas, his ears cocked for the noiseless sound as though they could hear it, trying to register its source.  Something bright again passed swiftly by, but this time he knew that it was on or over the painting.  Or in it?  No, how could there be real movement in a painting?  Somehow when he changed position the lighting, designed by the artist, must have reflected light in such a way as to create the illusion of movement.  Yet when he tried to duplicate his position and the reflective effect, he could not find it again.  Molina, he thought, regardless of whether you are a great painter, you are without doubt an ingenious prankster.

Sterling continued tracking the source of his sensations.  Again he saw the light flash by, still very fast but much brighter this time, along with a whoosh, like the waving of a torch.  Burning ones?  As he moved, the noiseless sound—really it was a kind of pressure—seemed to gain strength.  He could almost feel the sensation, yet there was no physical sensation to feel.  It continued to draw him, and he continued to be drawn.  To where?  To what?  He was moving closer to the canvas, much too close to gain any perspective, close enough almost to touch it.

Suddenly his feet reached the place they sought, the pressure from the noiseless sound ceased, and he lifted his eyes again.  To them the painting opened like a stage curtain, and the most magnificent scene they had ever beheld invited them to partake of its riches.

It now seemed to him that the painting itself had maneuvered him into the precise position required to view it properly.  Now at once all the idiosyncratic instructions from the artist made sense—the room, the lighting.  From every other perspective the painting was just a painting, technically excellent but not extraordinary, not worthy of being hidden away for most of a century, not worth the devotion of a life’s pursuit.  But from this one and apparently only point in the room, it was not merely a painting but a territory, a passage into a new world, a new dimension.

“Oh, this is transcendent!” he exclaimed aloud.  It did not even seem to be the same painting.  All the elements were there, but this—this was alive.  It was not like anything he had ever seen before, not like anything he had ever imagined.  All painting is an illusion, a representation of some reality or concept, but this was beyond both illusion and reality.  It was its own reality.

In his amazement Sterling recalled an overblown essay he had written in college arguing that art is controlled schizophrenia.  Had Molina found a way not only to transmit his schizophrenia to a canvas, but to let the viewer participate in it also?

Sterling stopped himself.  His emotions were getting ahead of his mind and his pulse was racing.  Even at the place of great discovery one must exercise self-control.  Enthusiasm may cause one to overreact and overjudge, to make too-quick commitments and then be disappointed in the aftermath.  A new and separate reality?  It is after all only a painting at the end of the day.  He drew back a couple of steps, looked away from the painting, folded his arms, breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly.   He looked up and saw that it was, indeed, still just a painting.

But the sound, the pressure was back, urging him to step back into that spot, that place where everything changed.  His heart was throbbing with the urgency, his head pounding.  Once again he stepped into the unmarked square and was met by a strange mixture of peace and exhilaration.

He resolved to investigate further.  This is after all why he had come.  What danger can there be, he thought—I have my wits.  He had a dual sensation of comfort and alarm, like when he had stood in the Alps on a great precipice overlooking a pleasant valley, experiencing the soothing sight of gentle scenery together with the terrible vertigo of a sheer drop.

Yes, there it stood, a world within a world, a world within a frame.  No longer was it a two-dimensional image playing with the eye, but a realm with its own space, its own time.  From here Sterling was looking not merely at the painting but into it.  The picture was so real that, it seemed to him, the sound that had drawn him was noiseless no longer, but took the aural shape of life and movement—the chirping of bugs and birds, the soft rustle of tree branches and the distant ripple of a running brook.  He could almost smell the earth and greenery and fresh water, and feel the velvety touch of a warm breeze brushing his skin.  He could see the sweat glistening on Adam’s skin, and Eve—God have mercy!—Eve now had a face, and it was a face beautiful beyond all comparison.

Within one stunning instant Sterling’s imagination was captured and ravished.  This is truly the masterpiece of all masterpieces, he thought.  Some painters draw the viewer into their world, others shove their world at the viewer.  But this man, this artist had discovered some method, some technique, some magic to completely involve the viewer in a scene created out of his own mind.  This is not a painting, it’s a diorama on canvas—no, a play!  What a magnificent work of art!  And what a travesty that it has been withheld from view for so long!  If one were to find the lost city of Atlantis it would not be a greater event of restoration than the recovery of this great painting.

Rogers Sterling pondered the place where he stood and his predicament.  He wanted to explore the painting further, but only in this one small circle so very close to the canvas could he see it as the artist evidently intended it to be seen.  Perhaps this is why so many had been driven mad.  Then out from the depths of the scene rushed a flaming light, coming at Sterling so fast and so straight that he reflexively ducked, but it was gone as quickly as it came.
He felt an urge to reach out with his hand into the space from which the mysterious light had flown.  He started to do so, but quickly stopped himself and drew back.  He was forbidden by the legal agreement with the museum from touching or manipulating the painting in any way.  And what did he expect to find?  Regardless of how it presented itself to his eyes, it was still a two-dimensional image on a flat canvas.

Suddenly the flame rushed past him from behind, and he felt the hot wind brush his hair and the side of his face.  This time without thinking he reached out and his hand went into the painting and struck—nothing!  The depth of space was not an illusion but real.  Again his heart began racing with excitement and fright.  How can this be?

He looked down and saw the bottom of the frame now as the threshold to another world, another reality.  He did not hesitate any longer, but stepped inside the garden and became one with the picture and its universe.  Now he was breathing its air, seeing in its light, hearing its sounds, smelling its odors, feeling its sensations.   At first he was exhilarated and prepared himself to explore this new universe.  No longer was it his interest to understand the painting, but now to understand his place within it.

Then he realized that, for all of its truth, for all its likeness to the world of his experience, this place was different.  All of its realistic elements were in their place and had taken shape, but so also were the unrealistic ones.  It was a like a dream.

It was also a world of but one moment.  All its movement, all its change had either taken place in its past or was going to take place in its future.  The birds hung in flight, but they were not flying.  The mouths of birds were open in song, but they were not singing.  The only moving things in this world were the bright, flaming lights, and they were moving too fast to really see, let alone tell what they were.  It now seemed that all the sounds and breezes were the effects of their motion within the painting.

There was Adam in his perpetual stance of motion headed out of the garden, but he would never leave.  And now Sterling could see that Adam’s eyes as he looked over his shoulder were cast coldly upon Sterling himself, as if to say, What are you doing here?

He then looked to the beautiful face of Eve, but her eyes were averted.  Somehow he was compelled to catch them directly—how can one gaze at the face of beauty yet not look into her eyes?  He had to see, but to see he had to move.  Must he be as still as the figures, or could he move about within the picture?  At first he thought he could not and should not, but it occurred to him that he could at least try so he did, and was delighted to find that it worked.

A part of him wanted to explore the garden, but above all else he needed to see her face and look into her eyes.  For the beauty.  To behold the beauty and understand it, just for one moment.

At first tentatively, then with increasing boldness he began to step toward the woman in the midst of the garden.  It surprised him how far he had to walk.  He lengthened his stride and quickened his gait until he drew near to her.  Then his pace slowed and he took single steps, as though he were creeping up on a doe that might be startled away.

It was not easy to maneuver to the right position.  The clearing where she sat was very small and surrounded by a tangle of growth that he could not move aside.  He persisted and finally reached a proper angle.  He was out of reach and could not touch her, but that is not what he wanted anyway.  Sterling set his gaze upon the visage and began to search for a soul within the perfection of form.  Who are you?  Is there anyone there?  Or are you only just another illusion?

What he saw next hit him like lightning, and fear shot through every nerve.  Her eyes were not the eyes of a drawn and painted figure.  They did not only look back, they saw him.  They knew him, and they were filled with anger—no, not anger.  Hatred. In that very instant the beauty of her face dissolved.  All the fine features were still in place, but the balance of them had shifted and now they were hard, sharp, mask-like—horrible.  Who is this?  What is this?  Molina, what have you done, what spirit have you instilled in your masterpiece?  What had Sterling done to arouse the harsh enmity of the painting—except that he invaded it?  But the painting itself had invited him, seduced him, and drawn him in.  Now it seemed the painting wanted to destroy him, to devour him.

The figure of the woman remained motionless, but Sterling felt himself to be in danger.  He struggled to free himself from the tangled vines around her as vigorously as if she had been attacking with fangs and claws.  He fled her presence and ran back to—where?  To his own world.  What was he doing here?  He must return to his own world of real space and time.

He was breathless when he reached the border between the canvas and the exhibition room.  He looked back and was relieved to realize that nothing was following him.  He straightened himself as though he were about to walk into a meeting of his peers, and was ready now to step out onto the floor when something impeded his progress.  Something very bright and very hot now barred his path.  On either side of him were glowing presences—he could not tell if they were entities.

Now a new panic flooded his mind.  He had to get out!  He reached out to touch the bright, hot things that stood in front of him, but there was nothing to touch.  They were no-things.  Yet he could not pass them, and he could not take that one step out of the canvas and back into the real world.

What he saw next was the greatest horror.  Looking out of the painting and into the hall, there he saw himself standing like a stone statue, gazing in the direction of the canvas with a vacant stare.  For the first time he became aware of the nature of his presence in the picture.  Only in his mind had he entered this world of oil and pigment.  His body had been left behind.  In this world he had neither form nor substance.  In this world he was the no-thing.
How long had he been here?  Here there was no passage of time, only the single moment frozen forever.  Somehow he had to make his way back.  He looked again into the chamber and struggled against the invisible plane and the fiery blades that separated him from himself.  He must find some way to reunite his consciousness with his physical body.  He made his way across the foreground of the painted scene, feeling the whoosh and fire of the burning ones as they policed their realm.  He just needed more time.  If the doorway in was blocked, perhaps there was another door out.

There was movement in the chamber, and what Rogers Sterling saw when he looked out again shot terror all through him.  Seib the curator, the director of security, and the two attorneys stood by the living but unresponsive form of the scholar, trying to communicate with him.

 From inside the canvas he pounded the air and called to them desperately, but they neither saw nor heard him.  If they took him, where would he go?  How would he ever escape?  For long minutes they discussed what to do while Howard Potter and Jessica Post stood at the door watching, and all the while the trapped professor screamed without a voice, vainly struggling either to free himself from his captivity or to gain the attention of those who had come for him.  No one looked.  In fact, everyone deliberately averted their eyes from the painting.

At last medical personnel arrived and carried Rogers Sterling away on a stretcher while he watched in despair from the great painting that hung on the wall.

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